Sunday, November 26, 2017

Five Principles that Guide me when I work with College Students

Twenty two years ago I left a corporate career to move to academics. Through my evolution from a PhD student to a Professor, teaching has always been an important part of my job. On this weekend, when I am thankful for all the students I have worked with, I wanted to share a few principles that have guided me when I teach – I believe they have played a big role in my effectiveness as a good teacher.

Love  Teaching and Respect the Students:  Early in my career I had a class with 4 challenging students. They were disruptive and borderline insolent in their interactions. I often found myself designing class sessions to control them, and made rules increasingly tough. At the end of the semester, a few students stopped by and shared their class experience. Only then did I see my behavior as one that had punished the silent majority of good students for the transgressions of the few bad ones.
As I introspected after that semester, I realized how easy it is for young Professors to start distrusting, and even disliking students.  Tenure, promotion and salary decisions (in Business Schools at Research 1 Universities in America) are tied to a Professor’s research output. Teaching rarely factors into these decisions. In such an environment, graduate students and young professors receive advice to avoid spending too much time on teaching. Some, then come to view students and teaching as a nuisance. When a Professor goes into class believing teaching is a distraction and is suspicious of the students, it comes through to the students, who react negatively setting off a reinforcing cycle. I advocate the opposite approach. And in this context, I was profoundly influenced by a remark made by my colleague Alan Ellstrand when he received a top teaching award. He ended his speech as follows:
“Recently, my son Kevin entered the University and as a proud father I followed his efforts. Interestingly, today, when I look around at students on campus, they all look like Kevin.”
I have known dozens of teachers in my career…and if they like and respect students the way Alan does, they tend to become good teachers. And loving and respecting your students often times means accepting that in any class there will be a few students who are disruptive and making sure we don’t generalize their behaviors to the whole class.

The Teacher is the Role Model: As teachers, we often have (and ought to have) exacting standards for our students. However, when I ask a lot from my students I need to make sure that I ask the same from myself. How can I punish students for late submissions if I come to class late? How can I teach professionalism if I don’t answer their emails in a timely manner, or take forever to grade their assignments and papers? Whenever I have found myself slipping on this, I know that my class will not go well – at least by my personal standards. Students observe their professors. And they will work hard for those they see working hard for them.  Teaching complex material in a simple clear way is a skill that takes time to polish. On the other hand, taking care of the small professional aspects of running a classroom can immediately provide a huge boost to a professor’s class performance.

Know your objectives Most teachers have clearly defined objectives for their course. These are usually in terms of the content taught. However, I try to think beyond the content. Some courses focus primarily on providing information to students. Others focus on building critical thinking abilities, while some focus on training for the use of specific techniques. Knowing what your course is supposed to do is critical. I have known professors go into classes meant to build critical thinking skills and then spend the whole semester in lecture – usually a huge mismatch between the objective and the teaching technique.  
Going further, I focus on what a student needs to get out of EVERY class session.  If the sole purpose of a 75-minute class is to provide information then a lecture may be the right way to go.   So how do I get students excited about the lecture? I may begin with an example or a short video that raises issues about the topic and is gray enough for the students to have a debate. After 10 minutes of such a discussion, the students are far more likely to pay attention to a lecture. When the focus is to help students in critical thinking then I try a mix – some lecture, a short in class assignment, and sometimes a video case. I know from experience, that thinking through the objectives of each class and then planning the class to meet that objective, is something that creates variety in classes (students tell me they appreciate the variety within a given class, and the variety between different classes in a semester), and leads to better learning outcomes.

Preparation: A few weeks ago, a colleague walked into my office an hour before I was to teach and was surprised to see me talking to the powerpoints on my computer screen. I was actually rehearsing how I would introduce a new topic in class.  She was astonished. I had taught this particular class for over two decades.  The fact is that that is EXACTLY why I need to prep. The danger of complacence, using dated examples, and into mindlessly going through the motions is greatest when we have been teaching that long. For me, preparation is key. I need to prep my delivery, the examples I will use, even look over student pictures so that I remember their names. I never like to have a conversation in the hour before I teach – because as I am prepping, I feel myself getting into a zone  - I don’t want that disrupted. On the occasions that I have gone into class without prep, I know that I have not used the best examples, have made mistakes, and have had to correct myself frequently. And I have not enjoyed teaching…and when that happens it’s almost certain the students don’t enjoy it either.

Learn and Evolve:  About a decade ago, I received a series of teaching awards at my university. Yet, I noticed disturbing signals – qualitative comments in my teaching evaluations suggested that I was talking over students, that I was tardy in grading, and I particularly remember one comment that hurt a lot ‘I think he sometimes wishes he was not in the classroom.’ My evaluations were still excellent but the comments were consistent across three very different sets of students. I knew I was slipping.
When I had started out as a teacher, I was happy to read the text desperately trying to stay two weeks ahead of the students. With experience, content was less of an issue. But as I got comfortable in teaching, the need to evolve as a teacher diminished. I introspected and then instituted changes in the way I teach – including a commitment to never teaching a class in exactly the same way. It is only when I try something new, when I fear an experiment going wrong, that I avoid complacency.

I don’t believe that the principles I have listed are the only ways to succeed. And I have not always been true to them. But to all aspiring academics I will say – working with students can be one of the most rewarding jobs there is. It is challenging, some students can drive you to distraction, but if you give thought and effort to it, teaching pays back in many ways. Over the years, I used to get appreciation notes from students at the end of the semester. They meant a lot to me, but after a while I would throw them away. A few years ago I was moving offices. And as I unpacked (on a day when I had had some very hard conversations) I came across a bunch of these old notes that I hadn’t yet discarded. I remember sitting down, reading and rereading them. The bad day was no longer so bad. I never threw notes away again. Today, I have a cork-board displayed in my office and when I get a nice note, I pin it there. Some days when I am not at the top of my game, I walk over to the board and read some of the notes….and the day seems wonderful again. A big thank you to all my students down the years.